Greater Greater Washington

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"Green Day" urbanism gets people excited for the real thing

People sometimes complain that "New Urbanist" or "town center" develop­ments like Downtown Silver Spring are fake and sterile. But these projects are to urbanism as Green Day is to punk rock. They may not be "authentic," but if done well, they can get people to seek out the "real stuff" later on.


Photo by jonathanpatenaude on Flickr.

That's what happened to me. When I was 13, I became increasingly curious about the outside world but had no real means to explore it. Then two things happened that would change my life.

First, I got a copy of Green Day's Inter­national Superhits! And second, my friend had a birthday party at the Washingtonian Center, a "lifestyle center" in Gaithersburg.

Between my parents, who listened to adult contemporary, and my friends who were getting into musical theatre, I was anxious to hear music I could actually relate to. Green Day was pretty easy to find: on the radio, on television, and in the halls of Blake High School, on t-shirts and patches sewn to jean jackets.

Their songs were fast and catchy, though as a preacher's kid, I was initially horrified by the foul language. But I'd spent plenty of mindlessly dull afternoons like the ones Billie Joe Armstrong described in "Longview," and was relieved to know someone else felt the same way.

Meanwhile, I'd never been to Washingtonian Center before the evening of the party. Walking felt like a punishment, something I did on those "Longview" afternoons when I didn't have a ride to any place more interesting. On those days, I'd walk 45 minutes to the shopping center closest to my parents' house, down streets with look-alike 1950's ranch houses and all while not seeing another person. It was boring, but slightly better than being at home.

Washingtonian Center Lake; The Kid In The Blue Wouldn't Stop Staring At Me
Washingtonian Center in 2006.

At the Washingtonian Center, walking suddenly became something fun. We could walk from the movies to an artificial lake, then look in store windows on our way to dinner. And we could do all of this while being around and looking at other people. Not only was it better than sitting at home alone, but it was more fun than going to the mall.

I didn't question Washingtonian Center's authenticity at first, perhaps because I couldn't yet tell the difference between it and a traditional downtown. But I definitely wondered why Green Day called themselves a "punk band," which didn't seem to describe a group who played stadiums. Punks, I imagined, were more likely found in places like Phantasmagoria, the grungy and now-closed punk club in Wheaton.

But both of these experiences served as a sort of gateway to more "legitimate" pursuits. It's because of Green Day that I made friends with similar taste in music who would later introduce me to "actual" punk bands like Fugazi or invite me to see their band play shows in punk houses. (The webcomic Nothing Nice to Say jokes that Green Day fans get into real punk out of embarrassment for liking Green Day.)

And it's because of Washingtonian Center that I began to explore downtown Silver Spring before it became a new "town center" in its own right, and taking Metro into the District to wander around there. I've always been interested in architecture, but it's trips to places like Washingtonian Center which got me excited in the spaces between the buildings, which is why I'm currently in school for urban planning.

Looking Back Towards Ellsworth
People may call downtown Silver Spring "fake," but it gets people excited about urban places.

Much as I wouldn't have gotten into real punk if I hadn't listened to Green Day, I wouldn't be so excited about walking down real city streets had I not walked down a fake city street first. So for that reason, I'm not bothered when a new development is compared to a small town or an Italian piazza. Some of these places are like the Good Charlotte of urbanism, unable to be even a good fake downtown.

But like a good punk song that can teach you to see yourself and your world differently, I'm convinced that a walk down a good urban street can do the same, whether it's in a city or a suburb, old or new.

For more on the topic of punk rock and New Urbanism, check out this post from Scott Doyon comparing the two.

A planner and architect by training, Dan Reed also writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 

Comments

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"You're not punk, and I'm telling everyone"

Ahh, Green Day...I could argue that I learned a completely different lesson about life from being a fan of Green Day, one that could even be translated to urbanism. I was a fan of Green Day from their Lookout days and was teased about liking weird bands at high school. Then Dookie came out and they made a big splash at Woodstock II. By the fall of 1994, literally the same dudes who gave me a hard time about liking a band not on the radio came to school with Green Day concert shirts they bought the night before.

What does this say about urbanism? I guess maybe that we shouldn't get too wrapped up in the questions of authenticity, particularly when we're really judging authenticity based on whether we like the people who like the object in question. Is Green Day any more poppy than, say, Jawbreaker or, Hell, the Ramones themselves?

Actually I don't really have much of a point, I just felt like reminiscing. Now to put on some Crimpshrine...

by TM on Mar 6, 2012 10:13 am • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by JB on Mar 6, 2012 10:51 am • linkreport

I'm so happy that other punks are into urbanism as well especially with jawbreaker and crimpshrine references in the comments.

That said, I agree that the only thing that really grants "authenticity" is time. I'm a firm believer that the role of gov't/planners should be to define form and that the uses will come. We've spent the last 50 years obsessing over use and lets see where that has gotten us.

by Canaan on Mar 6, 2012 11:02 am • linkreport

Also, not enough fugazi references for a story about metro-DC.

by Canaan on Mar 6, 2012 11:04 am • linkreport

A combination of time, and of government knowing how to lay out a framework for the market instead of trying to dictate the market.

My principal concern is that new buildings don't often allow truly distinctive storefronts. If you've ever been to downtown Ottawa you know how gaudy these things can get, but there is no doubting the new storefronts have character in a way someplace like the Convention Center doesn't.

by OctaviusIII on Mar 6, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

I'm actually a fan of places like Silver SPring, for the reason that it's a type of urbanism that serves a much broader demographic. Same with Bethesda. YOu have a wonderful mix of generations (kids, young professionals, married couples, older folks - as well as a broader racial mix), that to be honest, has disappeared from a lot of very trendy, urban neighborhoods. Logan Circle may have a great urban street grid, but it's also filled with a lot of upper middle class people in the exact same age and income bracket and place in life. Not the big tent urbanism that i'd like.

by AA on Mar 6, 2012 11:28 am • linkreport

Fugazi??? Don't you mean Bad Brains?

by Tina on Mar 6, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

I wouldn't compare Washingtonian Center to Silver Spring. There is a big difference between what springs up within a city and what happens when a developer recreates the illusion of a city where there was none. It's not about the organic nature, either. It's about the possibilities and the potential uses. Silver Spring will change and change again, and people can find spaces to organize protest if they want, or to start their own businesses and help to transform the city, if they have the capital and the demand. Washingtonian Center can only be what its owners want, and no public discourse will be allowed.

That's a fundamental difference. Silver Spring may seem plastic, and it doesn't have a cool artificial lake -- better planning, and more affordable housing options around the city center may yet make it a more vital and more interesting place to walk around, especially beyond the two blocks around the fountain that attracts 90% of the foot traffic. What it has, though, is potential.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Mar 6, 2012 11:37 am • linkreport

That said, I agree that the only thing that really grants "authenticity" is time.

I'm so old I can remember when a guy wearing an earring was an invitation to an ass-kicking outside of the bicoastal metropolises. Now the only men who wear earrings are "Real 'Muricans" of the Red States.

by oboe on Mar 6, 2012 11:41 am • linkreport

Thanks for making me feel old. Dookie was thev first CD I bought when I was 11 or 12. At that time, Green Day was punk. Some older kids got me into Rancid and Op Ivy as the years went on. Still two of my favorite bands. In college I mentioned this to my roommate's dad and he gave me a burned CD of some MC5. I made him feel old as he remembered the rise and fall of the MC5, which was entirely before my time. And entirely awesome. He still plays in a band and covers some of their songs.

As far as the urbanist thing goes... A lame attempt is better than a EXPLETIVE DELETED strip mall. But if its worth doing, its probably worth doing right.

by dano on Mar 6, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

Tina,
I used to take volunteer groups EOTR for projects and when we were on Alabama Ave. I'd always point out where some of the the Bad Brains grew up. Sadly no one ever appreciated that fact.

by Canaan on Mar 6, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

@TM +1000 for the Jawbreaker reference.

Here's one on topic: "Ten minutes from downtown, is ten minutes to far."

I live DTSS and I rarely go there. Concert with line down the street at the Fillmore last night (where I have not yet seen a show) and I drove to Baltimore to see Titus Andronicus.

by Redline SOS on Mar 6, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

for lots of people Green Day and the Rio Center will be plenty urban enough. Or Kentlands. It's not necessarily the Gateway to something better, but it can be, just like for me it was Detroit, remembrances of South Lyon's couple block square "downtown," Birmingham's downtown which in its heyday into the beginning of the last decade still had two regional chain department stores (now both companies are defunct), and Ann Arbor (go! original Borders) vs. the very traditional suburban Troy Michigan.

So when I moved to "DC" I wanted to live in DC, and for all but 2 years of the 24+ I've been here, I've lived in DC.

by Richard Layman on Mar 6, 2012 12:32 pm • linkreport

oops, and for me it wasn't Green Day, it was Iggy Pop, Sex Pistols, Vibrators, The Clash, etc. (But I still liked The Cars, Kate Bush, Magazine, Cure, Joe Jackson, etc. too). I still rue not going to a Talking Heads concert in a little theater in the old Michigan League building on campus because I had a paper due.

by Richard Layman on Mar 6, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

Good post AA

by H Street Landlord on Mar 6, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

"Logan Circle may have a great urban street grid, but it's also filled with a lot of upper middle class people in the exact same age and income bracket and place in life. Not the big tent urbanism that i'd like."

+1000. Well said, AA.

by jag on Mar 6, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

If anybody remembers pre-Dookie Green Day, they were pretty darned punk. I believe Billie Joe told an acquaintance of mine that there was a reason they named that album Dookie.

I'm admittedly new to this discussion, but this "fake" urbanism appears to me as somewhat a product of politicians looking for the "home run." Bring in big developer, instantly create jobs/lifestyle/development for far less effort than dealing with a dozen little local developers working one building or block at a time. To further the original analogy, they want stadium shows rather than club or house shows.

by AUHookd on Mar 6, 2012 3:12 pm • linkreport

Thanks jag. I just get a little upset when people think a healthy urban environment doesnt just mean a street grid with mix of uses, it requires a mix of people too. You want people to be able to grow and age in place (from childhood to old age). You can do that in Silver Spring a lot easier than DC, windy downtown streets and all.

by AA on Mar 6, 2012 7:50 pm • linkreport

Hey Dan,

I really like the way you've approached this question of what is "real" or "authentic" urbanism.

Your analogy with "lite" punk rock reminds me of something a restaurant critic (can't remember which one) said about high-quality chain restaurants (you know, the likes of, say, Chipotle or at the top end, Ruth's Chris). If you're in San Francisco or Chicago, there's no reason to ever go to a place like that.

But on the other hand, if you're in a small town in rural Kansas, you would be thrilled to have a Chipotle or a Ruth's Chris to go to.

So it all depends on where you're coming from.

I also get skeptical about the idea that there is such a thing as "authentic" urbanism. Sometimes places that are supposedly "authentic," such as Union Square in downtown SF, have things like private security guards, who shoo away homeless people. The same thing, by the way, happens in a lot of the pedestrianized/gentrified town center shopping areas in European cities that so many of us American planners look to enviously.

So this idea that there is a "pure" public space that is "genuine" is somewhat suspect to begin with.

But as you point out, maybe what really matters is for there to be spaces for lots of different kinds of people to be comfortable and to spend time -- even if shopping is the main thing to do.

Here in the Bay Area, a lot of people like to deride a "lifestyle center" called Bay Street in Emeryville. But you know? The crowd there is far more ethnically and socioeconomically and age-wise diverse than many of the nearby "authentic" public spaces that are nearby.

Anyways, great post, and best of luck with your planning training.

by Jake Wegmann on Mar 16, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

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